Linda Whittig and Devin Koski have gotten lots of attention as the driving forces behind SNOW, or “Slightly North of Washington” (school). That’s the neighborhood project that transformed the alley behind their North End home into a community space complete with movie screenings, basketball, beautiful plantings and art.
But the Whittig/Koski yard adjacent to the alley is a treasure in its own right. It’s a compact and lovely space filled with growing things. This is all the more impressive since the garden is virtually all shade — a condition that can make creating color and visual interest a challenge.
It’s an inspiring example of a shade yard, packed as it is with plantings, pathways, lights, sculptures, lanterns, seating areas and other points of visual interest.
Whittig has lived in the house for 17 years. During that time the garden has been an evolving work of living art.
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“The yard and the house have gone through several iterations,” said Whittig. When she’s not gardening, she works as a graphic designer and writes a blog, Bistro OneSix, detailing her domestic adventures, including the alley project and garden.
The previous resident of the Whittig/Koski home was a “bachelor,” said Whittig. “The backyard was entirely grass and arbor vitae trees. The first thing I did was rip everything out.”
She built a big patio and an addition on the back of the house. The reduced space and increased shade from trees that have matured over the years mean the yard has had to be a concentrated, carefully planned oasis. But today, it’s hard to survey any corner of the garden without spotting some bright glint of color, or light or sculpture.
Part of Whittig’s garden success has been making peace with the shade.
“I don’t know how many times I replanted grass under one of the trees. It never grew,” said Whittig. “You have to embrace what you have and figure out what you can do with it instead of trying to make your garden something it can’t be.”
Besides, she says, she can live vicariously through the SNOW alley, a space with plenty of sun.
Linda Whittig’s tips for coping with a shady garden:
1. In a sunny garden, you have lots of options for color. Having shade has meant incorporating elements that aren’t necessarily plant material — beautiful ceramic pots, for example. Pottery can act as little showpieces throughout the garden. I rely on those to give me height and color. Watch for sales at the end of the season.
2. Consider adding a little rock fountain to your garden. It doesn’t need sun, and, in fact, will grow less algae without sun.
3. Integrate sculptural elements: I have a metal botanical sculpture of cattails and a lotus. It’s plumbed to the gas line so the cattails and lotus flame. The sculpture adds light and height in a place where growing plants would be a struggle. Including little hanging lights in the trees and integrating little stone paths are other possibilities.
4. Take advantage of the areas where you do have sun and pack them with color. My little sun area is right around the patio. I only like purple and pink flowers, so I plant geraniums, petunias and spiky annual grasses because they add texture and height. I like ice plants for color (perennial) and gerber daisies. They’re cheery, and they bloom all summer. I also like alyssum and coleus with bright red leaves. I work in plants like dusty miller because of its gray color and soft, furry leaves. Good texture.
5. Hydrangeas, rhododendron, astilbe, coral bells, hostas and ferns all grow in the shade and can be lush and have lots of texture. Integrate some evergreens for winter interest.
What’s the latest on SNOW?
The SNOW alley, which runs from Heron to Lemp between 15th and 16th streets, just north of the Washington Elementary School playground, was the place to be on Halloween, said Whittig. Neighbors set up smoke machines, talking witches, strobe lights and burn barrels, and hosted a pumpkin carving contest. SNOW had around 300 visitors on Halloween night. Christmas decor included a decorated 12-foot tree, wreaths and lights. Other additions include SNOW’s own Little Free Library and new signs. Additions this spring and summer will include more plants to attract pollinators, said Whittig. The SNOW alley will also be one of the stops on the Idaho Botanical Garden’s tour this year.